The Elves and the Moccasins

Perhaps it began with The Elves and the Shoemaker (still one of my two favourite fairytales).

I’m no Imelda Marcos but when I was a child I did long for a pair of pointy red shoes. (I couldn’t believe my fortune when my cousin gave me her outgrown ones – the very pair that had seeded the yearning.)

When I was a teenager I made my own knee-high ugg boots. Mum sometimes tanned skins from our sheep and I snaffled a brown one of those. I bought leather thonging and spent evenings sewing by the fire. The boots were utilitarian rather than decorative and terrifically snugly. It didn’t bother me that they were not as tidy as other people’s store-bought ones.

There’s something very pleasing about meeting one’s own needs.

Years later, when I was teaching eight year olds, I wanted them to experience that. We made shoes. Our resources and technologies were limited but they gained an understanding of process and the joy of creating.

Each of these events was present as I recently wandered through the wealth that is the Bata Shoe Museum.

It began with the oldest shoe. Had my class seen this (alas, the museum is in Toronto; we were in Australia; no internet) maybe someone would have attempted another replica of Ötzi Man’s very serviceable footwear.

Otze Man's shoe

Bearskin, deerskin, bark and grass. Field-tested and found effective in temperatures of -5° to -10°.

They may have denuded the school gardens to find a plant that could be beaten into fibre for weaving…

woven sandals

South-western US, 10th century

…or used to create a fumidawara, a tall, northern Japanese boot for treading paths through snow around the house.

Japanese fumidawara

These clogs would have helped them understand that a basic design idea can be tweaked for specific purposes.


The flat-soled clog was worn by gardeners to smooth the ground after sowing seeds. It was made, not of the typical poplar, but of less-absorbent willow. Fishermen used pointy-toed clogs to catch and hold nets when repairing them.

Out of context would my class have guessed the item below was a shoe? Experiment: put this intricately engraved Indian paduka in a Western house, perhaps on a table, and see to what use it is put.  

Indian paduka

Jaipur, 18th century

I was stunned by the cruelty inherent in this dainty beauty. (Below)

Chinese shoes

Zhejiang province, Zhoushan, early 20th (!) century

Even my class’s little feet would not have fitted in these Chinese shoes. It’s heart-breaking to imagine adult feet that would.


A pair of jin lian from Shanxi. See my fingers for rough size comparison.

“The heel emerged in Western fashion in the late 16th century and was worn by wealthy men, women and children…(They) proclaimed that the wearer was free from physical labour.” (Extract from museum sign.)

Platform shoes

Men had given up heels by the 1730s but one famous man put them back in the fashion and pop magazines some centuries later.

Manual labour does have some requirements for elevation though. This savage-looking beast was only a problem if you were a 19th century chestnut that didn’t want to be shelled. It hails from chestnut-consuming Auvergne, France.

chestnut-crushing clog

Napoleon’s black silk socks were there. My photo was too blurred to use. So imagine a pair of thin black socks – that’s them. They prove that celebrity culture was alive and well in the early 1820s – they came from the assistant surgeon on the ship which brought Napoleon’s entourage home after his death.


Evidently she shared my penchant.

Fittingly, the footwear of His High Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama is the simplest-looking in the museum.


“To make truly beautiful shoes was a primary objective for North American Indigenous  women. Their artistic aspirations were traditionally expressed through superb and creative craftsmanship. Unlike many other cultures in the world, where footwear is created mainly for protection and durability, Indigenous women gave priority to a meaningful and often labour intensive design, which was pleasing to the eye.” (Extract from museum sign.)


And so we return to the magic of The Elves and the Shoemaker. Artistry, creativity and craftsmanship – this constellation is part of what the tale conveyed to me as a child. I found it not in Marilyn Munroe’s (or my own) pointy red shoes but in the wide varieties of soft and vibrant moccasins.

That is the soul-nourishment I wanted my students to experience through the making of a humble shoe.


Do not hesitate to visit this museum. Five storeys of changing exhibits, including some I haven’t mentioned here, plus a variety of events make it very worthwhile for all the family.

PS My apologies for making your eyes feel squiffy with some out-of-focus photographs.


7 responses to “The Elves and the Moccasins

  1. I think that those clogs would be ideal to cross my children’s bedrooms without stepping on all their rubblish and hurting my feet. I’m a bit nonplussed by the auvergnat shoes though – wouldn’t like to step on anyone’s toes wearing those…

  2. Wow, these were incredible. I love the part about the origins of the heels… That says a whole lot, doesn’t it? Out of curiosity, where in Australia were you teaching?

  3. It is not often that I catch one of your pages but i am So grateful I did today. \
    1. How did your mum cure the sheeps skin?
    2. What is your second favourite fairy tale, let me guess: Hansel and Gretel.
    3. Did you bring back the chestnut smashers they are fantastic shoes.
    4. Was Elton John in his foot stomping days influenced by Napoleon?
    5. I hope you have a lovely day. c

    • Hello Celi, how lovely to hear from you. You have been more active today than I imagined you would be.
      1. I don’t really recall what she added to the bathtub of water but I know there was much scrubbing of the skin with a brick. (Gosh, that sounds like hard work.) If you’re planning to do it, I can ask if she still has her recipe. Mum, are you reading this?
      2. Rumpelstiltskin but Hansel and Gretel is up there too – quite a variety of happenings.
      3. Very tempting – they would have been good for aerating the lawn. And really, they are fabulous in their own right. Clomp clomp, clatter.
      4. I think Elton’s stompings had a more peaceful intent than Napoleon’s.
      5. I have had a day filled with things I enjoy: contact with family; crisp, blue skies; chocolate; a walk and a chat; writing and more.
      6. Be careful with your injury and have a great day yourself.

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